The voters' register – Guardian

By The Citizen

With the unveiling of the timetable by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the race to 2015 has, of course, begun; but more than the race, the process is of paramount concern to all Nigerians. The voters' register is one aspect of the process leading to 2015 that deserves immediate attention and thorough compilation at this juncture if the pitfalls of the past are to be avoided. The pertinent question to ask with a view to having a better election in the future is: what has changed since the general elections of 2011? Nothing. No doubt, all the bye-elections and state elections conducted across the country after 2011 have been riddled with sundry irregularities. Late arrival of materials, inaccurate voter registers, underage voting and other malpractices have been the hallmarks. Therefore, the state of preparedness by the electoral umpire towards mission 2015 is deserving of rigorous examination. While the INEC chairman has complained loudly about insecurity and funding as threat to the process, the issue of voters' registration is one that is much more worrisome.

Voters' register as a key element of the electoral process has always been central to electoral fraud. So much so that in this day and age strange names such as Mike Tyson, Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela have been found in the electoral register in Nigeria. While many names were missing, outright, leading to disenfranchisement of a reasonable number of qualified voters, there have equally been a scandalous transposition of names in such a way that they were found in the registers of other states and constituencies. Instead of devising ways to remedy these obvious deficits, what is confounding is that at each electoral turn, registration of voters is always begun anew or almost so instead of updating of the extant register. This points to fundamental contradictions in ways Nigeria seeks to build and run institutions. When records are not kept appropriately, a nation loses not only materially but does the most damage to its institutional memory.

While it is disheartening that the voters' register, given the experiences of recent elections, is hardly worthy of being so described, despite the huge financial outlay on various registration exercises, there is no need for wholesale registration of voters. Although INEC seems to say this is not what it is about to do again, the concern is still genuine that wholesale registration at every election is an indication of inefficiency and fraud. The right thing to do is to display the existing register and allow Nigerians to verify their names. Those whose names are missing can then come forward to be registered along with those who have attained the statutory voting age of 18. If this is done, it will allow for order and, above all, it will cut cost. It must be stressed that the issue of registration and verification by the voters should start now. This will help to avoid the plague of double registration. The assertion of voters' sovereignty should begin with voters going to ascertain that their names are in the electoral register.  For full effect, voter education is then invaluable and community mobilisation is important to ensure citizens' participation.

Equally, INEC must address such issue as voters' transfer. It is currently not being well done by the electoral umpire. This is for the benefit of those who have changed residency either for reason of change of job or others. The related problem of purchase of voter cards must also be checked. Politicians who have perfected the art and science of rigging by purchasing and warehousing voters' cards must be fished out and made to face the wrath of the law.

For the avoidance of doubt, there are things that are sacrosanct to make elections credible. One of them is ensuring the emergence of public office-holders through popular election based on secret ballot and universal suffrage. There is also the issue of how independent from government and political parties the elections are, and an integrity-based procedure for voter registration. Other considerations include effectiveness of the array of choices that the electoral and party system allows voters; the equality of votes; the proportion of the electorate that votes, and the extent to which electoral outcomes approximate actual votes cast in the electoral process.

In all of these, voter registration and voter education are the bedrock on which credibility is built. Without a correct and comprehensive voters' register there is no foundation on which to hinge a viable democracy.